Worshipping at the shrine of Californian cuisine
I had always imagined that Chez Panisse was situated on some sun-drenched Californian hillside, housed perhaps in an Italianate villa, with just the merry clatter of goat bells in the distance. Sort of MasterChef crossed with The Sound of Music.
Because Chez Panisse is a restaurant, perhaps the best restaurant in the world.
It is very sad for a person to have fantasies, no matter how wholesome, about a restaurant. No wonder I’ve put on so much weight.
And it turns out that Chez Panisse is situated at 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, right in the middle of what is called the Gourmet Ghetto. Shattuck Avenue is not a very attractive street, and I should know because I trudged three-quarters of it.
Chez Panisse has definite issues with signage; it is discreet to the point of invisibility. It is housed in what appeared to be a Japanese-style building set back from the pavement – there are rumours that there’s only on-street parking – but in fact the building is what is called an arts and crafts house, with a lot of wood inside.
When you’ve walked more than a mile from the Bart station these things tend to be a bit of a blur. But an Italianate villa it was not.
If Chez Panisse is not the best restaurant in the world it is certainly the most influential. It is thanks to Chez Panisse that those exorbitantly expensive bags of fresh herbs are in our supermarkets, for example; although its founders, of whom the more famous is Alice Waters, would hate to think that. Chez Panisse was interested in, and boasted of, the provenance of its ingredients long before it was profitable – the restaurant had a lot of financially shaky years – or even very popular.
Back in the 1970s it created what came to be called Californian cuisine, a loose term for food that looks relaxed but is pretty tricky to pull off. It seems to have started as French food with Californian ingredients, but it soon snowballed into the whole organic-fresh ingredients – let’s-not-get-dressed-up kind of food that is so dominant now.
Without Chez Panisse your gourmet pizza and even perhaps your goat’s cheese salad would not exist. The Ballymaloe empire would be very, very different; and we’d never have seen sprouts on stalks (come on, who knew?) For me to visit Chez Panisse is like a soccer fan visiting the home ground of whichever the best soccer team is these days – it’s not still Brazil, is it? It is hallowed ground.
My companion on this excursion was the only other woman who was in California that weekend who is still prepared to eat desserts. Yeah, she is Irish too – what about it?